I’m rather proud of one word, scribbled in pencil in my field notebook (which is not to be confused with the fair-copy-notebook written up a few hours later). The word in question is “restless”. I wrote it about lions.
They were resting up under a collection of bushes spread out across the landscape in mid-morning. To a casual observer they looked utterly, spectacularly relaxed. But to me, seasoned lion-watcher, the body-language seemed to tell me that they were shifting out of their comatose post-digestive self-content. Something was up. I was particularly impressed by a big, lightly scarred female who wore a radio collar. In my view they were getting ready for action. Not right now: but today for sure.
We paid the lions another visit half-an-hour after sundown. Still lying about, still spread out. But even as we watched the big female got up and walked from one lion or group of lions to the next. Some she just stalked past, all stretchy muscles and lengthy stride. One or two she stopped and rubbed faces with. One young male –her son? – she licked affectionately, with some thoroughness.
And they responded. Some got up and stood about aimlessly. One of two stretched, yawned – and flopped back down again. One got up, went to join another — and lay down on top of her. As the big female passed our vehicle close enough to stroke, I could almost imagine her rolling her eyes in my direction and saying: “Jee-zus! It’s like herding bloody cats!”
Eventually they were all on their feet – and that’s when the collared lioness set off into the night with a sudden vast intent. And it was like throwing a switch. Her sense of purpose infected all the others and in a stroke, they were transformed from a dozen big floppy affectionate pussy-cats into a first-class hunting machine.
They walked off – that insolent slouching walk, all athleticism and self-certainty – and it was like the beginning of West Side Story, when the Jets sing their song: someone gets in our way, some one don’t feel so well. Here comes the pride, little world step aside…
And with that, they fanned out. Who gave the order? How did they know who goes left, who goes right, who holds the middle? How did they decide who were the chasers and who the catchers? For this was no impromptu lash-up: here was plan and purpose. The moment when they fanned out and turned into the terror of the Valley was one of those eternal Luangwa moments, one of those moments I can revisit any time I like.
We followed the hunt for little while, but it was soon clear that we were blowing their cover, so we left them to it. They moved on into the darkness, pale shadows in the Luangwa night.
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